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Queer in high school: then and now

We have come a long way in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ2SIA+ people. But the fact remains that we are not in a place of full acceptance yet. Questioning one’s sexuality and gender identity can be a scary experience for many, especially those who are exploring these concepts for the first time.

Canada’s relationship with queer people has changed drastically over the past 20 years. Gay marriage was legalized in Canada in 2005; since then, bills have been passed against conversion therapy and discrimination based on gender identity or sexuality. Nonetheless, people are still experiencing homophobia and transphobia every day.

A current queer CVR student (who would like to remain anonymous) explains that “Many LGBTQ+ teens don’t feel safe enough to come out because of how the people around them treat queer issues, which causes them to keep their feelings inside, often having negative effects on their mental health.” Bullying is still happening all the time in high schools, creating an unsafe environment for queer students to consider different facets of themselves. “Whether it be a ‘harmless’ joke about pronouns or directly being called a homophobic slur, it happens quite often,” they say.

When Jennifer Rosenbaum (CVR class of 2002) was in high school, conversations around queerness almost didn’t exist. “There were no books that had queer characters, no movies, no plays that were put on with any type of queer representation. And so, it was confusing.” This was before the internet was as influential to culture as it is now; resources were harder to find.

‘Out’ at school

Rosenbaum came out to a group of close friends in grade 11, and even though it went well, she still felt fear and experienced repercussions: “It distanced me from friends at a time when I might have needed to keep them most.”

Many more students are “out” as queer than 20 years ago, and conversations on the subject are more common. Our anonymous student adds that they have found community even amongst the instances of homophobia. “As tough as it has been at times, being in a very rural area, I have been able to make some amazing friends who I can go through all the hard times with.”

Rosenbaum herself is a teacher and is “out” to her students every year. The response from parents has been mixed: “Sometimes it’s positive, and sometimes there’s uncomfortable conversations that come up,” she explains.

 

Jenny Rosenbaum creates an environment for her students where they are space to be themselves by being open and honest about herself PHOTO courtesy Jennifer Rosenbaum

 

Our current CVR student reflects on this, adding, “If queer and trans identities are never discussed at school, teens won’t understand themselves and just feel like something is wrong with them, not knowing that there are thousands of people like them all over the world.”

But this young person also sees a hopeful future, especially because of some of their teachers: “They have helped me get through so much and give the best advice. They have seen me break down, and yet they still stand by me and make sure I’m okay. I know that as long as they are teaching, LGBTQ+ students will have someone on their side who will love them for who they are.”

More conversations

When Rosenbaum was in high school, there were even fewer conversations around gender identity than sexuality. “There were a lot more – stricter – categories,” she says. 

Today, more conversations are happening about gender identity, as trans and non-binary folks are often targeted at higher rates than gay people.

“Since gay and lesbian people have been discussed in society for longer, and gay marriage is legal in Canada, people seem to tolerate it more; whereas transgender and non-binary identities are only now being discussed more openly, so many people don’t understand,” explains our student. This gap in understanding is what leads to more hate speech and transphobia. “Their lack of knowledge becomes ignorance, which turns into fear, so they believe they have the right to make whatever jokes they want about transgender people,” they say.

However, Rosenbaum has a lot of hope for the current generation, sharing that kids these days are “a lot smarter” when it comes to these topics. “I think that kids are hearing about this from a younger age… And it’s not just about the queer kids; it’s really all the kids need to be able to understand themselves, stand up and support one another.”

To Rosenbaum, it’s “really beautiful” seeing kids getting to know their sexuality and gender identity. “You want students to feel like they have a sense of belonging,” she says. Both Rosenbaum and the CVR student agree that education has fueled change. And it’s by educating more and more people that queer folks will continue to become more respected, welcomed, and celebrated.

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